After years of effort by state and local lawmakers as well as business groups, the Joint Oregon-Washington Legislative Action Committee finally met last week to begin preliminary talks about the future of the I-5 Bridge spanning the Columbia River from Vancouver into Portland. It’s a step forward from the previous meeting in December of last year, when no Oregon delegates showed up.
However, comments from both panel members and the public at the meeting indicate the strong, persistent disagreements over the project’s scope and purpose.
Washington Rep. Sharon Wylie (D-49) perhaps best summed it up at the Dec. 11 meeting when she told colleagues “it’s not going to be easy. There’s no magic wand. And we won’t make everybody happy.”
Last year, the Washington legislature passed SB 5806 creating a bi-state legislative action committee to revive talks on replacing the century-old bridge. The bill was introduced after fallout from the Columbia River Crossing in 2013. Although it had support from both state governors, Washington state legislators couldn’t agree on its design and funding model and refused to authorize funding.
The CRC’s collapse left a bitter taste in the mouths of Oregon legislators that was reflected at the joint committee’s Dec. 11 meeting.
“Washington state did not step up,” Oregon State Sen. Cliff Bentz (D-30) said. “I’m here today to listen very carefully to the folks from Washington and see if they’ve reached a point where they can get their act together and help in putting a project of this nature into place, because there’s definitely a need for it.
“I can assure you I am not enthusiastic about going through that process again without getting a commitment from our wonderful neighbor to the north that this time they will be there. I’m anxious to listen and anxious to participate, when and if you guys can convince us that you’re for real.”
At the same time, Washington Rep. Brandon Vick (R-18) said “I think it’s also true for us to acknowledge that the process that was laid out last time…wasn’t one that met the desires or needs of some of our constituents. What we are trying to do here is create a process.”
Driving the campaign for a replacement I-5 bridge is safety concerns with the current infrastructure, which the Federal Highway Administration National Bridge Inventory lists as one of the most dangerous in the country. The original part of the bridge was built in 1917 with just two lanes.
However, the corridor is also among the most congested in the country due to insufficient capacity, which affects both freight mobility as well as businesses’ ability to attract new workers who have to sit through that traffic. Other than the I-5 bridge, the only other nearby crossing is on state Route 205 roughly seven miles away.
In 2016, Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes said the corridor was “the single largest barrier to regional prosperity.”
During public comment at the Dec. 11 meeting, Columbia Corridor Association Executive Director Corky Collier said: “business leaders have been resolute all along. The current crossing is accident prone. It’s a bottleneck, and it will not survive a major earthquake. It’s time to reinvest.”
He added that so far “I’m really impressed with the renewed effort.”
But how to address congestion, and whether it should be part of a replacement bridge, is one of several areas in which stakeholders and legislators will have to build consensus. One aspect of the CRC that helped derail it was whether to include a light rail line from Portland into Vancouver. The idea met with strong protest by some southwest Washington local and state lawmakers. However, Governor Jay Inslee’s proposed biennial budget anticipates light rail on the bridge.
However, Collier said at the meeting that “we don’t need to argue whether light rail is better than bus rapid transit. We need to decide where the two interface.”
While some want to focus solely on replacing an unsafe bridge, Washington Rep. Ed Orcutt (R-20) told colleagues at the meeting that the project needs to be holistic by looking at even more bridge crossings to address congestion from highways such as state Routes 14 and 500 that spill onto I-5 right before the bridge.
“Wouldn’t it be great to divert that traffic to another crossing?” he said. “It would help not only commuters get to and from work much more easily, it would also move freight much better, much more effectively. And that is what I want to see come out of this process.”
Voicing a similar view was John Charles, Jr. president and CEO of the Cascade Policy Institute in Portland. During the public comment, he told panel members that the corridor requires more capacity, which “absolutely” means 3-5 new bridges. “You should think bigger.”